48 Hours preview: The fascinating history of the ransom note
That's what Tom Wiles found when he began reading the email he'll never forget on April 3, 2008. There in his inbox was a ransom note from kidnappers who called themselves "Group X" and the message was frightening beyond belief - the group said it had taken Tom's only son, Robert, 26, and would return him when Tom paid a $750,000 ransom. What happened next is the subject of this week's "48 Hours Mystery: Ransom."
What Tom Wiles experienced is a rare event but when a ransom note is sent, it tends to stick in the public's consciousness. We all read the notes over and over trying to discern clues and intuitively try to guess who might have written it, even though we have no first-hand knowledge of the people involved.
That was certainly the case with the note left behind with the body of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old child found murdered in her parents' Boulder, Colorado, home back in 1996. The case was sensational - a beautiful child found murdered on Christmas Day, wealthy parents, a picture-perfect town and that mysterious ransom note.
The ransom note was a lie of course. Whoever signed the note - and it was signed S.B.T.C. - said that JonBenet was safe and sound when in fact she had already been murdered and her body was in the house's basement. And then there was that demand for $118,000, an odd figure that happened to be the amount of the bonus received that year by JonBenet's father, John.
Everyone thought the amount demanded meant something. The same type of thinking applied in the Wiles case. $750,000? Why not $1 million? That's because $750,000 was a significant amount and meant something to the Wiles family.
The handwriting on the Ramsey note was examined and discussed over and over by "experts" who claimed Patsy, JonBenet's mother, wrote it, therefore she was the killer. Both Patsy and John Ramsey lived under a cloud of suspicion for years but eventually they were cleared of having any involvement in their daughter's murder, a crime that remains unsolved.
But the Ramsey note is only one of several famous ransom notes written over the years. Here are some others:
- Charles Lindbergh Jr. - In 1932, the 20-month-old son of living legend and pilot Charles Lindbergh was taken from his parents' home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Over the next few months, the kidnapper left an astonishing 13 handwritten notes! Those notes helped convict Bruno Hauptman who eventually was executed for the baby's murder. The FBI lifted the letters in Hauptman's name and cut out the letters to form a signature. When compared to his actual signature, it was nearly an identical match. Interestingly, that handwriting comparison was the first major test for the FBI's newly-created crime lab.
- Patty Hearst - Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by a group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) back in 1974. At the time, she was a 19-year-old college student at the University of California at Berkeley. The SLA's first written ransom note demanded the release of political prisoners but later "communiques" - audio recordings from Patty and others - demanded food for the poor. Patty's father complied and created a group called "People In Need" that would provide $2 million to feed over 100,000 people for 12 months. It is still considered the oddest ransom demand ever. Riots broke out in Los Angeles and Oakland at the start of the program as thousands of people overwhelmed the food banks. Eventually, Patty Hearst became "Tania," a member of the group, and helped rob a bank armed with a machine gun. Police wound up killing all six members of the SLA in a televised gun battle but Patty was not there. She was eventually captured while robbing another bank. When asked her occupation, Patty reportedly said, "urban guerilla." She was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to seven years but only served 22 months because the rest of her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter.
- Peter Weinberger - This is one of the lesser known kidnapping cases but nonetheless important for several reasons. On July 4, 1956, 20-month-old Peter Weinberger was kidnapped from the front patio of his parents' home in Westbury, Long Island. His mother had placed the baby in his carriage while he slept. The kidnapping terrified Americans because, unlike the Lindberghs, the Weinbergers were not well known and not wealthy. They were a typical middle-class couple living in a supposedly safe suburban community. Left in little Peter's place in the carriage was a ransom demand for $2,000. When the Weinbergers did not pay off the reward the following day, the kidnapper sent a second letter. What's interesting is that, in those days, the FBI by law had to wait seven days before getting involved in a kidnapping case. After the Weinberger case, President Eisenhower signed a revised law reducing the waiting time to 24 hours and today, there is no waiting period for child kidnappings. Following the seven-day waiting period, the FBI gathered dozens of agents and trained them in handwriting analysis. They then began inspecting two million handwriting samples from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, federal and state probation offices, schools and other officially filed documents. Incredibly, after a month of inspection, agents came up with a match - Angelo LaMarca who was on probation and lived near the Weinbergers. He was arrested and confessed and then told agents the location of the baby who'd been killed. Like Bruno Hauptman, LaMarca was executed.
There were other notes sent by famous criminals that stick in our mind, letters that "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz sent to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, for instance. Or the cryptograms left by the Zodiac Killer in California; he's never been caught or identified. Hell, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski wrote such a long "manifesto" that his brother recognized it as Ted's writing.
But none of the ransom notes mentioned here or any of the most famous notes were written in the style favored by the movies. You know the kind of ransom note you're used to imagining - letters cut out of a magazine and pasted onto a piece of paper. As far as I can tell, that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters.
Paul LaRosa is a CBS News producer and published author. For more info, go to www.paullarosa.com.
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